Talking it out: Toronto launches next phase of poverty reduction efforts
Advocates hope the series panel discussions will generate bold ideas for the next phase of the city's 20-year poverty reduction strategy.
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Ann-Marie Moulton is the third of four immigrant children from Jamaica, raised by a single mother in Scarborough who worked in a factory to put food on the table.
“Where I come from, we were always told a good education is the key to success. Work hard and you can achieve your dreams,” says Moulton, now in her late 30s.
“But in reality, you can go to school and still work hard and still find yourself in a situation that is not what you dreamed,” she says. “For too many people in this city it’s a struggle every day to live a good quality of life. I have seen that first-hand. And I want to change that for others.”
Moulton, a member of Toronto’s Lived Experience Advisory Group, will be among the panellists at a city hall forum Monday evening to discuss how the city can support quality jobs and livable incomes.
It is part of a series of panel discussions the city’s anti-poverty advocate, Councillor Joe Mihevc, hopes will generate bold ideas “to set the stage” for the next phase of Toronto’s 20-year poverty reduction strategy, approved by city council in 2015.
As part of the strategy, city council must set priorities for each four-year term. With municipal elections in October, Mihevc says the discussions will arm voters with questions for candidates about the city’s role in fighting poverty.
“The first line of defence in the fight against poverty is a fulfilling job with an adequate income. Everything else is dealing down-river with the effects of poverty,” Mihevc says. “So this is why we’re starting with jobs.”
Future sessions in the coming weeks will deal with the anti-poverty plan’s other action areas including food access, service access and co-ordination, transportation equity and housing stability.
Moulton, who became a single parent during college, completed her social work studies and found a job in a youth homeless shelter where she worked for 15 years and “found my passion.”
“I never knew such places existed or that teenagers could be homeless. I knew then that I wanted to dedicate my life to helping them,” she says.
Moulton’s steady work at the shelter allowed her to buy a house and provide a stable home for her daughter, who has just graduated from the University of Toronto.
But since the Scarborough shelter closed in 2015, Moulton has been forced to rely on a string of contracts to make ends meet.
“I am living the precarious employment life now,” she says. “And I’m worried about what will happen to my daughter and other young people. We have to help them get good jobs because they are our future.”
Creating pathways to meaningful employment with adequate incomes is an area Moulton and others believe the city must embrace with more urgency over the next four years, particularly for young people.
An example of a successful program that could help more youth is Regent Park’s Moving Towards Opportunity, says Heela Omarkhail, manager of community partnerships for area developer The Daniels Corp.
The program, spearheaded by Daniels in 2015, matches employers with high school students who receive 12-weeks of job readiness training followed by eight weeks of summer employment and mentorship.
Daniels partners with Toronto Employment and Social Services, Dixon Hall, Pathways to Education, and the Yonge St. Mission to identify low-income households with teenagers who might qualify and provide job readiness training.
Since it began three years ago, Daniels estimates the program has injected about $250,000 into local households.
“It not only sets up that young person for success, but helps effect change in that person’s family and broader community,” says Omarkhail, who is also a panelist for Monday’s discussion.
The program has 25 companies signed on for this year, but hopes to recruit at least 40, she says.
Omarkhail says her message Monday night will be for the city not to underestimate the power of partnerships.
While the city’s first four-year poverty reduction work plan focused on “doing a lot of everything,” Mihevc says the next phase has to pick some winners “and invest for impact.”
So-called “social procurement,” that gives businesses owned by disadvantaged groups access to bidding on public sector contracts, is one area where the city could make a huge impact at very little cost, Mihevc says.
For example, a number of Syrian refugees have started catering businesses. Finding a way to ensure these businesses get to bid on city contracts to cater public events, serves both a business and social purpose, he says.
Municipal government and other public institutions, such as hospitals and universities, spend billions a year purchasing goods and services to run their operations, Mihevc notes. Over the past four years, in collaboration with the Atkinson Foundation, the city developed a social procurement template called AnchorTO Blueprint that any large public institution could adopt.
Last year, the city purchased $550,000 in goods and services through social procurement, he says.
“But that’s peanuts when you consider the billions that we spend,” Mihevc says. “Over the next four years, we need to scale up dramatically. We have to find a way to make sure every city department and every public sector institution, uses social procurement.”
Community Benefits Agreements, which ensure public infrastructure projects, such as the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, create solid employment and apprenticeship opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups, also deserve a boost, he says.
“This idea is really still in its infancy and needs a lot of nurturing in the next while,” Mihevc says. “How we do that as a city needs to be a priority.”
According to the 2015 Census, more than 20 per cent of the city’s population —almost 543,400 residents — is living in poverty.
By comparison, the poverty rates for Canada and Ontario are just over 14 per cent while it is about 12 per cent for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.
In 2015, city council unanimously approved TO Prosperity, a 20-year action plan to reduce poverty and ensure all residents can live in dignity. The strategy is built on 17 recommendations divided into six areas including housing stability, services access, transit equity, food access, quality jobs and incomes and systemic change.
For more information about attending a panel discussion go to: toronto.ca/povertyreduction
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